Saturday, August 1, 2009

July 2009

Unless I missed something in the last few years, this harrowing new film from veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow is the first feature to capture the sweaty intensity and death-defying existence of being an American soldier in Iraq. Breathtaking and disturbing, the uncomplicated story follows a three-man bomb squad as they are sent out into the street to disarm powerful munitions as less-than-hospitable Iraqi citizens look on.

The 57-year-old Bigelow, best known for cult favorites “Point Break” (1991) and “Strange Days” (1995), doesn’t rush anything; each frightening, unpredictable assignment the squad is sent to plays out in what seems like real time, shot with hand-held cameras that get right in the face of these men. One lengthy sequence has the trio of soldiers stopping to help a British unit in the middle of the desert and finding themselves the target of sniper fire. The film depicts long periods of waiting, in this case under the burning tropic sun, followed by sudden violence that seems---from everything I’ve ever read or heard from those who’ve experience warfare---closer to reality than what most action-filled war pictures offer. This film isn’t about battlefield strategy, military goals or political motivations; it’s about doing a job and surviving to see another day.

While each set piece plays out with teeth-grinding intensity, the film wouldn’t have the impact if the director and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was an imbedded reporter with a bomb unit) hadn’t emphasized the volatile relationship between the three members of the squad.

Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie (he was the smart-mouthed boxer trained by Clint Eastwood in “Million Dollar Baby”), is a no-nonsense kind of soldier who’s counting down the days remaining before he can go home. Sanborn prefers to get in and out of hot zones as quickly as possible, which becomes a point of conflict with the new squad leader, Staff Sgt. William James. This cocky, self-styled wild man who savors the chance to don the protective body suit and untangle the detonator wires of these home-made explosives could care less that his unorthodox methods unnecessarily put his team at risk. Jeremy Renner, who has never had a role this prominent (though he did play Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 indie “Dahmer”), plays Sgt. James, who, while totally nuts in his refusal to take precautions and wound too tight to function normally, proves to be superbly skilled at his job. He gives an amazingly focused performance; in many ways it reminded me of Christopher Walken’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Both characters have remade themselves into the warriors their wars required.

The third member of the squad is Spc. Owen Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown; tentative and unsure of his abilities, he admits he’s just waiting to die.

How these three relate, work out their differences and, in the face of danger, trust one another as emotional brothers explains what war is about----at least the war that’s fought on the ground day after day after day----in ways that no civilian or politician can grasp.

I’m not crazy about the title, but, if I read it correctly, its meaning captures this war. “The Hurt Locker” is the place where soldier put all their demons and fears, where they can shove aside all the normal emotional responses they might have to the horrific experiences of war, allowing them to continue to function and survive and do the job their country has asked them to do.

Director Richard Donner, after “Superman” became a smash hit in 1979, expected to return to London to finish up the sequel, having shot most of the footage planned for Part II at the same time he was making the original. Instead, he was fired by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind and replaced by Richard Lester, best known as the director of “A Hard Days Night” and “Help!”

The Salkinds, who battled with Donner during the filming, didn’t think they needed him once the picture was a box-office success and brought in Lester, whom they had worked with on “The Three Musketeers” films. Just as shortsighted, they decided they didn’t need any of the footage of Marlon Brando (who played Superman’s father Jor-El) in the sequel---avoiding what would have been a hefty payday for the actor---and substituted Susannah York as Superman’s mother.

If the No. 1 priority is the bottom line---as it almost always is in big-budget filmmaking----then it’s hard to argue with the producers. “Superman II,” minus Brando and Donner, was the second most popular movie of 1981. But if the goal was to make a worthy follow-up to the impressive original, they failed. And that failure becomes more obvious after seeing the re-edited version of the film, which represents Donner’s vision (at least, as close as possible) for the sequel.

Producer and editor Michael Thau (who had supervised a 2000 restoration of “Superman”), with the support of the director and the encouragement of the loyal fans of the series, utilizes the Donner footage that Lester had discarded and reshot (so he could claim directing credit) and the structure that Donner and script consultant Tom Mankiewicz intended to piece together this alternative to the disappointing sequel. (A minute chronicle of the changes can be found on the film’s Wikipedia site.)

While this 2006 version can’t help being choppy and occasionally jolting in its editing (put together nearly 30 years after it was filmed) it greatly benefits from the disembodied image of Brando, which shifts the focus of the film from the impossible relationship between Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to the soul-searching, intense confrontations between father and son.

What was the strength of the 1981 version remains the best thing about the 2006 version: Gene Hackman’s performance as Lex Luthor (all directed by Donner). Part standup comic, part silent film evil doer, Lex never stops cracking wise or spotting an angle he can use to his advantage. It’s a crime he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for either “Superman” or “Superman II.”

Thau brings back Donner’s opening sequence in which Lois throws herself out the window of the Daily Planet newsroom to test her suspicion that Clark Kent is Superman. Her stunt fails but later she tricks Clark to admit his dual identity by firing a gun (loaded with blanks) at him. That sequence is pieced together from Reeve’s and Kidder’s filmed auditions. Two Daily Planet mainstays from the original, editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper) and photographer Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) are underutilized in “Superman II;” instead the film (both versions) spends too much time with the evil trio from Krypton and their campy takeover of the United States---another miscalculation by Lester.

Visually, there’s nothing in “Superman II” that can compare to the brilliant photography by Geoffrey Unsworth in the first film. There’s an unforgettable, deep-focus shot of Clark walking in the wheat field after his father dies, photographed through the kitchen window at dawn from his mother perspective as she places a box of Cheerios on the table. This painterly still life is followed by the magnificent blue of the glaciers and water of Superman’s newly formed home away from home. (The two-time Oscar winning Unsworth is responsible for most of the 2006 version of Part II since he shot all the Donner footage before he died in October 1978.)

One problem with the structure of “Superman II” is that it doesn’t step back from the plot and offer the thoughtful moments that enriched the first film. Maybe if Donner and Mankiewicz had been able to finish Part II, some of that magic might have been added. (The pair’s commentary on the DVD is well worth a listen.)
The film ends disappointingly as it repeats Superman’s stunt of turning back time to erase everything bad that happened during the movie. It seemed like a cop-out in the first film and really seems lame to do it again.

The sequel to “Superman,” no matter who directed, was bound to be a disappointment: it’s hard to recapture that feeling of awe when audiences first saw Superman fly. But Lester’s emphasis on silliness rather than classic storytelling set a tone for the series that was carried on in the next two entries. Donner’s version, at the least, gives a taste of how the Superman legend would have been continued under his guidance.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like my movie gangsters with at least a hint of psychological underpinnings (Freudian or otherwise) to help explain who or what made them turn to crime. Michael Mann’s thoroughly entertaining chronicle of the last two years of John Dillinger’s life, when the FBI made catching the dashing bank robber their No. 1 priority, spills over with superbly orchestrated shootouts, escapes and robberies and captures the deep disparity between the haves and have nots during the Great Depression, but never digs very deep into its subject.

Johnny Depp’s Dillinger resembles, a bit too closely, Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow from “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), another carefree romantic who robbed banks, to less notoriety, during the Depression. But Dillinger doesn’t display anything close to the quirks of that film’s Clyde; he’s just a smart, good-looking criminal. An equally one-note character is his pursuer Melvin Purvis (a tightly-wound Christian Bale) but that’s to be expected----he’s the good guy, the ultimate professional who, while never as interesting as the outlaw, will always prevail at the end.

Mann, shooting in many of the original locales of Dillinger’s exploits, directs believable action as well as anyone in the business, starting here with a brazen escape by Dillinger and his gang from the Indiana State Prison before Dillinger is even issued prison garb. A later escape from a city jail is even more spectacular as Mann’s camera follows the escapees through the narrow stairwells and hallways of the ancient facility. There’s also an explosive night shootout at a rural motel followed by a chase through the woods, showing off Mann’s directional dexterity and Dante Spinotti’s first-rate cinematography.

The film’s best performance is given by Marion Cotillard, the French actress who won the 2007 Oscar for “La Vie en Rose,” here playing Dillinger’s last girlfriend. She reluctantly gets involved with this dangerous man, but ends up caring deeply for him. Also quite good are Jason Clarke as Dillinger’s right-hand man Red Hamilton and Billy Crudup as a ruthless, conniving J. Edgar Hoover.

Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman (from Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction book) go to great lengths to show Hoover’s FBI as just as brutal and unfeeling as the criminals they’re after, but they also never allow Dillinger to become a sympathetic character. For all his cool, half-smiling cleverness, Depp’s machine gun-wielding crime boss is presented as a bad man who led a very exciting life. Yet Mann and Depp never let us peek very far under the facade for signs of what made Dillinger Dillinger.

While “Public Enemies” is a much stronger effort than Mann’s slick, forgettable big-screen version of “Miami Vice,” or his overly solicitous biopic “Ali” (2001), it falls short of his best films, “Heat” (1995) and “The Insider” (1999). “Thief” (1981), his first feature film, does what Mann’s new film should have: offer a thoughtful and thorough character study of a career criminal.

James Caan plays Frank, a safe cracker specializing in jewelry, who has a good thing going until he throws in with crime boss Leo (a memorable Robert Prosky, best known as the desk sergeant on “Hill Street Blues”). He ends up paying a price for trying to go big-time.

Not only does Mann show the step-by-step procedures of the break-ins, but he explores Frank’s anxieties and frustrations even as he makes bundles of money. The supporting cast is first-rate: Tuesday Weld plays Jessie, the fragile, needy restaurant hostess who sees beyond Frank’s brash exterior; Willie Nelson as Frank’s criminal mentor; and Jim Belushi, in his first film, plays Caan’s partner, an expert in alarm systems. Dennis Farina, who later starred in Mann’s acclaimed TV series “Crime Story,” also makes his debut in a small role as a gunman for Leo.

TOOTS (2006)
Has there ever been a more exciting, vibrant and glamorous than New York City in the years after the war? The city was the center of the sports world, the television and music industry, organized crime and the bustling world of newspapers. And they all came together in Manhattan’s taverns and restaurants nearly every evening. Not only was this before the famous became too rich to mingle with the hoi polloi, but before drinking to excess on a nightly basis---while the wife and kids were safely tucked in back home----was frowned upon. It was also a time when these celebs had no fear of reading about their after-hour indulgences in the paper the next morning. The reporters and columnists who were hanging out in the same joints respected their privacy; maintain the image of family values and All-American lifestyles.

At the center of it all was Bernard “Toots” Shor, a Philadelphian who came to New York in 1930 and gained a following among the city’s rich and famous as a bouncer at many of the most popular speakeasies in Manhattan. Encouraged by the friends he’d made, he opened his self-named restaurant and bar at 51 West 51st Street in 1939. For the next 20 years, the circular bar at “Toots” was the hippest place in the city and Shor, treating everyone as both a friend (he called everyone “crum-bums,” from Supreme Court justices to young sport writers) and a special guest, became the town’s top saloonkeeper. He moved around the corner in 1959, but by the end of the 1960s, the world of celebrity had changed. No longer were the top athletes and actors hanging out in bars night after night.

This documentary, made by Shor’s granddaughter Kristi Jacobson, lets those who were there tell Toots’ story, including writers Pete Hamill, Murray Allen and Gay Talese; TV personalities Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace; and athletes Joe Garagiola, Whitey Ford and, most poignantly, Frank Gifford. Toots was a very important part of Gifford’s life; he clearly sees the barkeep as a second father and he doesn’t hide his feelings in the interviews.

The filmmaker also includes some archival footage of two of Toots’ most loyal customers, Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra, talking about the man they so admired. Unfortunately, it was too later to hear from two of Toots’ favorites, the great Yankees, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio.

Toots Shor, who died in 1977, was a bigger-than-life character who was a big part of creating the legendary Manhattan nightlife at mid-century, and he did it simply by being a great friend to everyone who mattered. This documentary is a worthy memorial to his fascinating life.

The latest entry in this fantasy series does little to advance the epic tale of young wizard Harry Potter and his battle with the much-feared high priest of the dark side, Lord Voldemort. Also treading water is the character development of the movie’s maturing hero and his cohorts, Ron and Hermione. Yet it still runs 2 hours and 33 minutes.

Putting aside the “Harry Potter” fanatics, who, savoring every word J.K. Rowling has ever written, would be happy if every film was six hours long, I can’t imagine the average movie fan will find much of interest in “Half-Blood Prince,” in large part because so little happens. It easily could have been combined with 2007’s “Order of the Phoenix,” turning two placeholder films into one really good one. But this series isn’t about making first-rate, standalone films; most important is remaining doggedly faithful to the original novels.

The last 40 minutes of “Half-Blood Prince” brings the characters and action to life as Harry and Dumbledore plunge headfirst into an adventure to unlock the very soul of the dark world. Visually and emotionally, it’s the only memorable episode of this plodding picture.

I never really took notice in the previous five films, but at least in this one, the acting, with few exceptions, is either drearily bland or over-the-top flamboyant. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron struggle with any scene that requires them to be anything more than spunky and determined, while the older actors either ham it up (Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent and Helena Bonham Carter) or are given little to do (Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane). The great exception is Michael Gambon, the deep-voiced, elegant acting legend who took over the role of Dumbledore when Richard Harris died after the second Harry Potter film.

Gambon, who made his film debut with a small role in the Laurence Olivier-starring “Othello” (1965), emerged as one of Britain’s top stage actors in the 1980s and ‘90s after being a mainstay of British TV productions since the 1970s, highlighted by his starring role in Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Detective” (1986). He began appearing in American films regularly in the 1990s, including key roles in “The Insider” (1999), “Gosford Park” (2001) and “Open Range” (2003). He also gave a mesmerizing performance as Lyndon Johnson in the HBO movie “Path to War” (2002). But much like fellow acting giant Ian McKellen, who will forever be remembered as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings,” Gambon has a place in film history for his calm, thoughtful and witty Dumbledore, who understands Harry, and his destiny, better than anyone. In “Half-Blood Prince,” he’s especially key to the plot and more than ever deserves recognition for the role. Maybe even an Oscar nomination?

Director David Yates, who also helmed “Order of the Phoenix” and will do the two-part conclusion, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (along with veteran series scripter Steve Kloves), seems content to keep the faithful happy, biding time until finally putting the finishing touches on Harry’s destiny and his endless stay at Hogwarts.

DON JUAN (1926)
This silent version of the legend of the infamous Latin lover starts off impressively, with Don Juan’s father, an important Spanish nobleman, discovering his wife’s indiscretion and instilling his young son with a lifelong distrust of women. John Barrymore, as both the father and, as an adult, the son, captures equally well the bitterness of the father and the dashing, carefree manner of the son. We first see Don Juan cavorting in his Italian estate in an amusing scene in which he shuffles his various mistresses from room to room as word comes that the husband/lover of two of the women is on his way there.

But once Juan spots a young woman (Mary Astor) in the court of the wicked Borgia family, the film becomes a very familiar tale of royal intrigue and Don Juan’s playboy legend is all but forgotten. Suddenly, he’s an heroic figure out to save the na├»ve girl and her oppressed family.

The cast, especially those in the Borgia clan, including Warner Oland as the evil father, Estelle Taylor as the conniving Lucrezia and Myrna Loy as a lady in waiting, keeps things interesting and Barrymore’s enthusiastic performance never flags. But it’s really a sin that his character carries the name of history’s greatest lover. The picture should have been sued for false advertising.

CHERI (2009)
More than 20 years ago director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer teamed for the witty, sexy costume soap opera “Dangerous Liaisons.” Their new collaboration shares the look and gossipy intrigue of that 1988 success, but is sadly lacking in characters you care enough about to either love or hate.

The filmmakers have adapted a pair of Colette stories about Lea (Pfeiffer), a high-class prostitute in pre-World War I France who, approaching 50, realizes she’s near the end of her run. Then her longtime friend (Kathy Bates, another aging woman of ill repute) encourages Lea to take up with her 19-year-old son, Cheri (Rupert Friend), who seems to have no interest in anything other than getting drunk or high. Despite the queasy nature of the relationship (Lea has known the boy since he was born), and Cheri’s nearly total lack of personality, the pair bond and end up together for six years.

Despite her history of short-lived affairs (with the men paying the bills), Lea has settled into her life with the freeloading Cheri and is surprisingly unprepared when his mother announces that a marriage to a young woman has been arranged and the wedding is just months away. How Lea accepts this new reality makes up the second half of the slow-moving picture.

Pfeiffer gives an admirable performance as this conflicted woman who finds all her toughness and practical approach to life useless after losing her heart to Cheri. But there is something remote, out-of-time about her character; Lea seems way too modern (and way too thin) for this early 20th Century world. While the 51-year-old actress looks ten years younger, still retaining the beauty that would attract young clients, her character never displays the sparkling personality you’d expect from a woman who has made her living alluring rich, famous and handsome men. Hampton’s script goes out of its way to make all these frivolous people not just dull, but quickly forgettable.

This odd, stagy philosophical study of an individual’s responsibility to do what they can to improve society goes off on too many tangents and attempts to tackle too many issues yet it remains fascinating throughout.

Set during the run-up to World War II, the picture uses the rise of Adolf Hitler as the launching pad for its examination of ignorance and cruel foolishness. Michael Redgrave, an underrated British actor who was drawn to difficult roles, plays David Charleston, a former foreign correspondent whose cynicism turns to hopelessness as world events turn ugly. Escaping into his own world, he works as a lighthouse caretaker on Thunder Rock, an isolated outpost on Lake Michigan.

Using a highly theatrical device, David imagines he can interact with the long dead captain and passengers of a ship that crashed near the lighthouse in 1849. Among those he gets to know is a doctor condemned for experimenting with an early form of anesthesia and a before-her-time suffragette. His intellectual debates with these characters on their responsibility to continue to fight against accepted beliefs are like scenes out of George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and a rare cinematic plunge into larger issues of how one lives life.

British writer-director Roy Bolting does an impressive job of presenting David’s background, the passengers’ lives and the odd interactions between this 1930s man and these characters who have been dead for 90 years. The director and cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum make the most of the cramped lighthouse setting.

Redgrave, the father of Vanessa and Lynn, gives one of his most compelling performances as this self-analyzing, short tempered intellectual who is constantly searching for answers. It ranks with his best work, including his hypnotic turn as the ventriloquist in “Dead of Night” (1945), as the disturbed brother in “Mourning Becomes Electra” (1947), the introspective, retiring teacher in “The Browning Affair” (1951) and as the disillusioned foreign consul stationed in Vietnam in “The Quiet American” (1958).

James Mason creates an intellectual presence as David’s friend and boss who visits at the start of this film as part of an inspection team. Their heated discussion of each man’s place in the world sets the tone for this thoughtful, introspective drama.